Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Stumbled across a website headline asking the question "Is a free agent familiar to coach Mike Zimmer a good fit for Vikings?"
Experience tells me, "Um, duh."
Best example I can think of: Early 1990s, Cleveland Browns. A fella named Belichick showed up in Berea, Ohio with a system in mind and ideas for how to begin implementing it. He wasn't the eccentric genius he is today. In fact, he wasn't even 40 years old and he had never been a head coach before.
Even with his two Super Bowl rings as Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator with the Giants, the leftover players didn't care for this cold-hearted, mumbling, monotone man who would walk by them in the hallway and not even make eye contact. Two players -- Michael Dean Perry and Reggie Langhorne -- even walked off the practice field after clashes with Belichick.
It wasn't long before Belichick turned to the east and began Pied Pipering a line of former Giants to Cleveland. Joe Morris, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, Everson Walls, Mark Bavaro were among the loyal Belichickians who arrrived with some gas still left in the tanks. We used to ask Belichick when LT's -- the original LT (Lawrence Taylor) -- flight would arrive.
Even Phil Simms was so close to signing that the Browns actually called a press conference to introduce him. With reporters and TV cameras waiting in the interview room, last-minute talks broke down. After a lengthy delay, an introductory presser suddenly became a hurry-to-the-parking-lot-to-ask-Phil-what-the-heck-happened news scramble.
That's the long way of saying, yes, Zimmer will have interest in "his guys" from Cincinnati. It's only natural. No, his guys didn't win a couple of Super Bowls like Belichick's guys did over 20 years ago. But the Bengals sure have known how to play some solid defense under Zimmer.
Here are the Bengals to keep an eye on:
DE Michael Johnson: The unrestricted free agent who makes the most sense for the Vikings. He's 27, 6-7, 260 and has the skills to rush the passer but the dedication to play the run even if doing so results in fewer sacks. That last part ain't easy for right defensive ends to swallow. Jared Allen isn't coming back, folks. He'll be 32 and there are better teams who need pass rushers and will pay dearly for them. And, frankly, he doesn't fit the Vikings' new defense. In Zimmer's seven seasons as Bengals defensive coordinator, only two players -- DT Geno Atkins and Johnson -- have had double-digit sack seasons. Johnson had 11 1/2 in 2012. He had 3 1/2 last year, but, according to ESPN, he tied for first on the team in pass disruptions. And the Bengals were fourth as a team in that category.
MLB Vincent Rey: Remember him? His pick-six against Matt Cassel in Week 16 gave the Bengals a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, sparked the onslaught and essentially was the final boot the backside of Leslie Frazier's career as Vikings coach. Rey is a 26-year-old restricted free agent. But the Bengals put the lowest tender -- $1.431 million -- on him. That means the compensation is a pick in the round he was drafted. And since he was undrafted, there is no compensation in terms of draft picks. The Vikings need playmakers at linebacker. Rey knowing the defense would be a big advantage.
Other Bengals to watch: S Taylor Mays, 26; CB Brandon Ghee, 26; S Chris Crocker, 33. Yes, Crocker is an old player. But he's a big-time Zim guy. He came out of retirement the past two years when Zimmer needed help at the position. "I did it because I still felt I could play and because of Mike Zimmer," Crocker said during a phone interview shortly after Zimmer was hired by the Vikings. Asked if he'd be willing to come back a third time, Crocker laughed. "We'll see," he said. Crocker doesn't fit what the Vikings typically look for in free agency. But, hey, he's tight with the head coach and he believes in the system.
Zimmer's thoughts: Zimmer was asked by reporters on Thursday about how hard he'd be chasing after his Cincy guys. He said: "It always helps because of the communication, but it’s not relative. I had no one in Cincinnati [his first year]. Matter of fact, I was the only new coach I think when I went there on defense. I had no players that came with me at that time. It’d be nice, but it’s not imperative."
The hiring of Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, as Vikings coach has met the approval of some Vikings defensive players.
“It’s a good hire,” said defensive end Brian Robison. “I think he’s one of those guys that’s very passionate. Obviously he’s going to expect the best out of his players week-in, week-out, and I think it’s a great job. [General manager] Rick [Spielman] and them did their homework as far as interviewing a bunch of guys and came up with what best suits our organization.”
The intense Zimmer will be a change from Leslie Frazier, who was usually calm and collected.
“We’ve got the guys in the locker room to handle any type of coach they throw at us. I think we got a lot of mentally tough guys that, if you look at our season last year, things weren’t going the way they needed to be. Guys stayed in and fought hard, so I think we have guys that can pretty much handle anything in that locker room.”
There is a thought that Zimmer will switch to a 3-4 based defense. Here's what Robison had to say about that:
"We’re not sure what type of defense he’s going to run because of the different backgrounds he’s had over the years, but it’s going to be very interesting to see what kind of things we do under a new scheme, or even the same scheme. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but one thing we do know is that we’ve got a new head coach and we’ve got to rally behind him and get some Ws back here.
"I would love to do a hybrid type of defense. Maybe throw in some 3-4 plays, some 4-3 plays. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. Bottom line is if he decides we’re going to do a 3-4, I’m open to being a 3-4 outside linebacker. We stay with the 4-3, I’m totally fine with that too. I’m confident in my athletic ability to do anything at this point."
Robison talked to defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who played under Zimmer when Zimmer was a Cowboys assistant.
"Bottom line was that he said he’s a guy that’s obviously going to kind of be a hard guy on you," Robison said. "He’s going to yell at you and trying to get the best out of you but at the same time if you deserve praise, he’s going to praise you up. It’s just a different change of pace I guess from Coach Frazier."
Other Vikings reaction:
Safety Jamarca Sanford: “I’ve heard nothing but great things about him. I heard he’s a passionate coach, a player coach, a man of respect. That’s what you want out of a head coach.
“I like the way he communicates with the players on the sidelines, he’ll get in your face and he’s aggressive. I love that as a defensive player. That’s what every defensive player wants.
“You see the things he did in Cincinnati. They were playing great defense out there. That’s one aspect we’re looking to correct. That’s the last thing you want to be, almost dead last in the league in defense.”
Center John Sullivan tweeted: “Very excited to play for coach Zimmer and to see the staff that he puts together. #skolvikings”
Defensive end Everson Griffen, who will be a free agent, said: “Seems like the Bengals went far this year in the playoffs, and he called good plays on defense. Haven’t heard too much about him, but I can tell you that the way the Bengals play defense, the way they attack the ball and some of the things I’ve heard from guys around the league on his mentality, his style and aggression, it seems like a good fit for the Minnesota Vikings.”
Kicker Blair Walsh tweeted: "Congrats Coach Zimmer. Welcome to the Vikings!"
Former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier confirmed via text tonight that he has been hired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator. ESPN's Josina Anderson reported it first.
Frazier is joining Lovie Smith's staff. The two have backgrounds in the Tampa 2 defense so it makes sense that Smith would bring Frazier with him on his new staff.
The Vikings fired Frazier on Monday after a 5-10-1 season.
Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson was denied permission to interview with the Falcons, according to Fox Sports.
General manager Rick Spielman said during Monday’s press conference assistant coaches would need written permission to speak to other teams since they’re all still under contract.
Davidson, 46, just finished his third season with the Vikings. He has previously spent time on staff with the Patriots, Browns and Panthers for 14 years before joining former head coach Leslie Frazier’s staff.
Davidson was a teammate of Spielman’s brother, Chris, while at Ohio State.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder isn’t sure what the future holds this offseason and intends to speak to general manager Rick Spielman about the issue.
But it wouldn’t surprise him if the organization selected a quarterback in the first round.
“I think it all depends on what the new head coach wants to do,” said Ponder after the organization announced the firing of Leslie Frazier on Monday. “But it wouldn’t surprise me.
Ponder began the season as the team’s starting quarterback but played just nine games due to inconsistency and injuries. The 12th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft intends to prepare this offseason as a starter either in Minnesota or with another team.
“This is what I’m familiar with. These guys my teammates, the ones I have a relationship and this is where I’d like to continue to be. But ultimately I want a shot to be a starter. So if that’s not here then I’ll have to find somewhere else.
Ponder, 25, wouldn’t be surprised if the organization brought him back along with Matt Cassel for competition purposes that would benefit both quarterbacks. If that was the case, he’d expect the front office to stick with one quarterback unlike this season.
“Matt’s done well and obviously he’s been the starter the past few weeks, and he’ll probably be named the starter going into the offseason if he opts in or they opt in,” Ponder said. “We’ll see. I think it could be a good competition. We have a good relationship. I think it could work out well.”
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